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British Government Instituted 3-Month Deletion Policy, Apparently To Evade FOIA 86

An anonymous reader writes: In late 2004, weeks before Tony Blair's Freedom of Information (FOI) act first came into force, Downing Street adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails more than three months old (paywalled). The IT decision has resulted in a "dysfunctional" system according to former cabinet officials, with Downing Street workers struggling to agree on the details of meetings in the absence of a correspondence chain. It is still possible to preserve an email by dragging it to local storage, but the relevance of mails may not be apparent at the time that the worker must make the decision to do so. Former special adviser to Nick Clegg Sean Kemp said: "Some people delete their emails on an almost daily basis, others just try to avoid putting anything potentially interesting in an email in the first place."
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British Government Instituted 3-Month Deletion Policy, Apparently To Evade FOIA

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  • by Sean ( 422 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @03:05AM (#49935129)

    Illegally capture all the communication of the general public, while evading the lawful requirement to preserve their own.

    Typical.

    • by Phillip2 ( 203612 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @03:19AM (#49935159)

      You are making the mistake of assuming that the government is a consistent whole.

      There is a fairly high chance that the people who are spying on your email are also spying on those in whitehall who are deleting their email.

      • by Sean ( 422 )

        Yeah that's true. If they run out of disk they probably delete my least interesting data to make room for more of theirs.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          With current technology it would cost between 2-4 billion USD in storage space to store all US Internet backbone data every year. That's pennies for a large state actor. The thing is, a *lot* of data is being save for later use/analysis. Of course not all, but even encrypted traffic that can't be read at the time of recording will be saved for later in case it can be opened in a few years time or even decades later.

          Your e-mails and whatnot are stored somewhere in their systems and they will not get deleted

    • by antiperimetaparalogo ( 4091871 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @04:26AM (#49935351)

      evading the lawful requirement to preserve their own.

      Typical.

      As explained in the BBC documentary "Yes, (Prime) Minister" by Sir Humphrey Appleby: "some correspondence lost in the floods of 1967..." (now you may ask "Was 1967 a particularly bad winter?" - "No, a marvellous winter. We lost no end of embarrassing files.")

      "Yes, Minister - The Skeleton in the Cupboard"

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Amazingly:

        Last year, British officials claimed that flight log records, which might have shed light on those rendition operations, were "incomplete due to water damage” [parliament.uk] thanks to “extremely heavy weather in June 2014.” A week later, they suddenly reversed themselves, saying that the “previously wet paper records have been dried out.” Two months later, they insisted [vice.com] the logs had not dried out at all and were “damaged to the point of no longer being useful.” Except th

        • Amazingly:

          Last year, British officials claimed that flight log records, which might have shed light on those rendition operations, were "incomplete due to water damage” [parliament.uk] thanks to “extremely heavy weather in June 2014.” A week later, they suddenly reversed themselves, saying that the “previously wet paper records have been dried out.” Two months later, they insisted [vice.com] the logs had not dried out at all and were “damaged to the point of no longer being useful.” Except that the British government’s own weather data indicates that June 2014 was an unusually dry month [vice.com] on Diego Garcia.

          My comment about the BBC documentary (yes... i insist!) "Yes, (Prime) Minister" has been modded as "Funny" BUT:

          I was watching an episode of it with some "lessons" about how a politician can avoid a reporter's question, and the advise was "just answer the question by saying 'that's not the question', and change the subject answering something irrelevant" - ABOUT JUST AN HOUR LATER i watched some politician in the T.V. DOING EXACTLY THAT (and the phrase he used in Greek -i am Greek- was an exact translation

          • It was this kind of answer which fell apart in the face of people like Jeremy Paxman.

            "That's a very nice answer, but it's not an answer to the question I asked you. Please answer the question"

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

            http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new... [dailymail.co.uk]

            The thing is (of course) that politicians face the media (who seldom defer in the UK anymore) but the civil servants who are the real power behind the throne are usually well protected from such things.

            • That was a good interview in your link - very polite, but also insisting in the question (even if not answered it makes the point clear: the other guy does not answers the question!). By the way, i am Greek, i don't follow UK media much, but that reporter (Jeremy Paxman, as i read his name from the video) is one of my (few) favourite non-Greek reporters... i have watched some other interviews he made and i always found him polite but (bravely) persistent (you may have some criticism for him, especially if y
        • by caseih ( 160668 )

          Oh rest assured that everything "documented" in "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" was based on real events. This set of shows should be required watching for any political wonk, or anyone thinking of running for office. The show literally hurts while being the funniest show ever made. Even if you have never experienced a parliamentary system.

          In one episode, the British government sends delegation to an ultra-conservative Arab state and during a reception, the British civil service sets up a com

        • Surprisingly, if the records were in Westminster palace then this doesn't need bad weather.
          The building is starting to fall apart and at least one MP has been flooded out by the effluvia from the gents toilets on the floor above.

          I don't know about you but I'm not keen on picking through records with _that_ kind of water damage - dried or not.

    • Hmmm

      It is always amusing to see those that chant the mantra "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" so loudly and frequently, do everything possible to avoid scrutiny of their own actions.

      • It is always amusing to see those that chant the mantra "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" so loudly and frequently, do everything possible to avoid scrutiny of their own actions.

        Boys will be boys and politicians will be politicians. And because this sort of behaviour is not only tolerated but actually expected, it will continue. After all, people don't choose most of their actions based on rational consideration but by expressing cultural archetypes - and our cultural archetype for an

        • People do tend to live up to expectations, and when someone is being punished for things based on accusation rather than conviction, they've lost most of the disincentive that would normally have prevented them from doing bad acts. (If you've been made to pay for the car, why not drive off in it?)

          And, of course, when sociopaths see that everyone more or less expects politicians to act like sociopaths, what better job is there for them to pursue? They're already qualified in most people's eyes and the pa
    • ...which means any regulated industry (banking, financial, insurance whatever) now has a higher duty of care than the government. In regulated industries, you have to keep all emails - regardless of whether the user deleted them or not. You don't have to answer FOIA, but you do have to answer to the courts when asked to do so.

      You'll also note that even bankers get worse pensions (pound for pound) than MPs. Yes, those feckers in Whitehall are getting paid plenty for doing less than anyone else.

    • by bwcbwc ( 601780 )

      What's the old phrase again? "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide..." They trot it out every time they want to invade our privacy, along with "It's to fight terrorism!"

      So what have they done wrong that they are they hiding with these insane deletion policies?

    • ... then these folks should get the gas chamber. Either that or emptying you browser history is not a crime.

    • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

      "If you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide. " at least that is what our officials here in the States are always telling us. Governments all of the world want to backdoor our encryption and slap data retention and business records retention requirements on just about everything.

      When given the opportunity to lead by example we get Downing Street deleting everything they can before it becomes subject to discovery, and here in the states we get White House E-mail systems so comically badly admin

    • 3 month, 6 month retention policies for enterprise email servers is pretty routine.

  • Evade FOIA (Score:5, Funny)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @03:17AM (#49935153) Journal
    Mission accomplished.
  • tangential thread - how many emails do you get in a day and how long do you keep them?

    I usually get about 50 emails, half of which I need to engage on, and half of which are just FYIs. I usually delete emails on my first pass if I know I'll never need them. But once the emails get "below the fold" they're not going to be deleted. I have email history going back 6+ years.

    it's all keyword searchable, of course. I like it that way.

    • by x0ra ( 1249540 )
      I never delete anything. I can go back to 2005'ish. Storage is cheap.
    • by Greyfox ( 87712 )
      I still have a mail file or two that go back to the mid 00's. For a while I was using Emacs VM as my mail reader. It still has the best threading and thread handling options of any mail reader I've ever used, and I'm still considering going back to it. Paired up with the MIT remembrance agent, you could be typing out an E-Mail and it would remind you of a similar problem you had months earlier. You could also index your source tree in with it, so if you were discussing something going on in code, it would s
  • by knorthern knight ( 513660 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @03:29AM (#49935181)

    > "Some people delete their emails on an almost daily basis,
    > others just try to avoid putting anything potentially interesting
    > in an email in the first place."

    Reminds me of an Elliot Spitzer quote...

    "Never write when you can talk. Never talk when you can nod.
    And never put anything in an e-mail."

    He should also have mentioned never using prostitutes so expensive, that paying them triggers "money-laundering-detection" and gets the feds to investigate you. But that's another story.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Since you started quoting, (as a Greek) i like to quote something a bit older: the (about 2 milleniums old) Latin "verba volant, scripta manent" - roughly translated by me to English as "spoken words fly, written words stay".
      • Since you started quoting, (as a Greek) i like to quote something a bit older: the (about 2 milleniums old) Latin "verba volant, scripta manent" - roughly translated by me to English as "spoken words fly, written words stay".

        It's funny that you're a Greek repeating a Latin quote. Glad to see someone remembers who won in the Battle of Corinth!

        • Since you started quoting, (as a Greek) i like to quote something a bit older: the (about 2 milleniums old) Latin "verba volant, scripta manent" - roughly translated by me to English as "spoken words fly, written words stay".

          It's funny that you're a Greek repeating a Latin quote. Glad to see someone remembers who won in the Battle of Corinth!

          Of course i remember who won in the Battle Of Corinth my dear barbarian... we did, the Greeks!

          With the words of the Roman poet Horace: "Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio" (roughly translated by me to English as: "Conquered Greece conquered its barbaric conqueror and civilized Latins!"), in the same spirit with the similar, and better known to barbarians "Roman arms conquered Greece, Greek civilization conquered Rome" ...

          That Latin quote was brought to you by a Greek Natio

          • Love it. , .

            • Love it. , .

              Greeks and barbarians [youtube.com]: a beautiful Italian lady (Sophia Loren) singing a beautiful Greek song ("I love you - what is this thing called love?") -in great Greek!-, from a more than 50 years old USA movie ("Boy on a Dolphin") shot in Greece!

              • Thanks for the link! That's pretty cool.

                • Thanks for the link! That's pretty cool.

                  Usually many/(most?) Slashdoters are very "sensitive" with my (Greek) Nationalism - but to "people of history/language/culture/etc", who know about the Battle of Corinth, Latin quotes, Roman poets, etc, i am confident that i can respond with some "nationalistc way (between funny and serious)", without them reacting like... you know... the usual Slashdoter!

                  • Usually many/(most?) Slashdoters are very "sensitive" with my (Greek) Nationalism ...

                    I don't think a little pride in one's country is a problem. Just resist the urge to invade Poland because of it, and we're good ;)

  • 20-year rule (Score:4, Informative)

    by Richard Kirk ( 535523 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @06:34AM (#49935631)

    The sad thing was there was a much better system in place, though it may never have made the transition to electronic stuff. There was a public records office, where anything official was put on file. After a fixed number of years it went into the public domain. If you have something that was sensitive you could request that it be sealed for 30 years, or 50, or 100 (some of the WW1 documents had a 100-year seal, but that was really rare). This meant that nothing strategic should ought get out prematurely, but in the end we got to read our history. People will always find a way of hiding or shredding public documents that they don't want. This just made hiding easier and less suspicious than to shredding. We got to see the real minutes of meetings, and not sanitized versions for Freedom of Information Act viewing.

    We ought to bring the Public Records Office and the 20-year rule back. People will always find a way of hiding or shredding public documents that they don't want: this just made hiding easier than to shredding.

    That Blair fellow is still around, I believe.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is why I strictly SnapChat all my correspondence... and nude selfies. Ok, they're generally one in the same.

  • How does this work with backups? I have trouble believing that they flush their backups after three months. In which case an FOI request ought to require them to pull the files from backup. Which ought to mean that they've only massively increased the cost of complying with the requests.

    Anyway, if you use email seriously, it becomes an important part of your files on projects, etc.. I regularly references emails that are a couple of years old. If people can't rely on email for long-term storage, then they w

    • Backups might keep records around slightly longer, but chances are you reuse your backup tapes and so you'd eventually overwrite them with a "doesn't contain the old data" backup. I highly doubt that they are backing up, putting the backup into storage, and never using that backup tape again unless they need it to restore from.

    • How does this work with backups? I have trouble believing that they flush their backups after three months. In which case an FOI request ought to require them to pull the files from backup. Which ought to mean that they've only massively increased the cost of complying with the requests.

      Which means a higher cost they can pass on to the person or organization filing the FOI request, which makes it more expensive to dig into the government's dirty laundry. If you filed an FOI request for a document and was told it cost $5, would you pay? What if you were told it costs $50? How about if it cost $500?

  • by mschaffer ( 97223 ) on Thursday June 18, 2015 @07:35AM (#49935763)

    The UK government could learn a thing or two from Hillary Clinton.
    Just keep everything on your personal server. Then pick and choose what you want to disclose.

  • I suppose that simply being honest and ethical so that you don't have to fear FOIA requests is just too difficult?

  • It's been shown time and time again that e-mails are being used as evidence chains that can either make a case or destroy it. In the non-government world, I advise my customers that they should have a written policy about e-mail retention that's based upon any regulatory requirements that they may be subject to and strictly follow it. Why? mainly because of 1) EDiscovery and 2) Consistent policy enforcement to demonstrating that the policy was followed and 3) spurious litigation avoidance. Not having e-

  • First of all many private companies do the same, in fact have a much more draconian systems, whereby emails older than a week are deleted. This is for liability reasons. Everyone likes to compare private industry to government and why can't government be more like private industry, so there you go, you get your wish.

    Second speaking from experience any manager with an IQ larger than a bedbug knows not to send anything sensitive or contentious via email because some sort of record is kept. Instead, it is done

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